John Newman: a bright light of soul
The new voice of Yorkshire talks about giving up his dream of being a mechanic and how his mum’s love of Northern Soul is a gift that keeps on giving
It began with Feel the Love. Actually, the John Newman story began much earlier than that smash hit – stories are never as cut and dried as the narrative arc demands – but the release of Feel the Love was when everything clicked into focus. It was when the world took a good look at the strapping singer – a man who was all set to be a mechanic until things went in a different direction – and decided it liked the cut of his jib.
For Newman, Feel the Love was a calling card. Although his is not the name in the biggest type, his magnificent soulful voice is clearly the biggest, boldest, brightest sound on it. An electrohouse throbber recorded with and released by Rudimental, Feel the Love sounded like a winning lottery ticket. And then, just to prove that was no fluke, Newman collaborated with Rudimental again on Not Giving In. Two out of two. His numbers came up again.
At this stage of the proceedings we need to pause the fairy tale and establish how Newman got to this point. He grew up in a small, remote Yorkshire town called Settle, where, he says, “nobody had anything to do but fight”.
The young Newman was interested in sports such as rugby and motocross and occasionally getting into a spot of bother, but music was also very much on the agenda. His mum was a huge northern soul fan and she gave him a love for those fierce, emotional sounds. His older brother was in a band and that too filled his teenage head with ideas.
Newman remembers DJ-ing at parties and weddings, sticking pop music of every hue onto the playlist to get older relatives dancing and jigging. Then, there was a makeshift studio at home in a cupboard under the stairs which became his alternative universe.
He was certainly on track to make music, even if singing didn’t initially float his boat. “I just didn’t see it as creative,” he explains. “I wanted to be something else – a DJ, a producer, a songwriter for other people. I didn’t think my voice was expressive. It was just something to use to say a lyric.”
After school, he was on his way to be a mechanic, but that soon took a back seat as he realised that music was what he truly and passionately wanted to pursue and, at 16, Newman moved to Leeds to study music production.
A few twists of fate then took him in another direction. Shortly after arriving in Leeds, two of his closest friends were killed in a car crash. Newman found himself dealing with the outcome from that tragedy by singing.
“I was in a right state after that because we were so close and they were so young. I just couldn’t get over it or understand it. I’d sit in my little flat in Leeds just crying and messed up.
“But I also had a guitar and I started writing down was going through my head. It took me a while but I realised that I was getting over what had happened by singing, that this was my way of sorting myself out.”